It’s a rough day in the animal kingdom when we find one of our own outsmarted by a plant. And not just, “Ah, this plant was stickier than I anticipated and now I’m going to be digested” outsmarted but, “All of my basic instincts have been cunningly manipulated and I don’t even know it” levels of being Entirely Outplayed. And so it is with a bit of disappointment in our kingdom that I must report, in the dance between our brethren the insects and certain species of orchids, it is the orchids who call the tune.
We know, or think we do, about the evolutionary tricks of flowers – the colors and patterns and shapes that allure insects to land on and thereby pollinate them, and which have the extra advantage of being interesting enough to humans to provoke mass-scale cultivation. But there exist a special group of flowers who take that game to a whole other level – the sexually deceptive orchids, and among the vanguard of those studying the tricks of their trade is 25-year-old Australian botanist Alyssa Weinstein.
Sexually deceptive orchids have evolved the ability to emit scents that mimic the sexual pheromones of female wasps. By wafting these into the air, they attract Up For It male wasps who descend upon the orchids and proceed to attempt to mate with them, furiously going about their business without the slightest realization that their partner is a flower, and not a wasp. While they are thus… occupied… the flowers have any number of methods of depositing pollen upon their waspy exteriors, thereby upping their reproductive odds.
It’s a tragicomic and irresistible botanical tale, and after learning a bit about Weinstein, it’s not remotely surprising that her studies would bring her to these tangled and evolutionarily fraught exchanges. The first thing to know about Weinstein is that she is almost painfully cool. As a child growing up in Australia and New Zealand, she horrified her classmates by bringing in her treasured snail colony for pet day. Cool. She risked her social reputation by publicly interceding on the behalf of a cockroach that a staff member was attempting to smoosh. Also cool.
And then, when it came time to go to university, she followed a diverse course of study to feed all of her many interests instead of accepting the common advice to find a specialty and dig fervently into it. She took a music performance diploma in cello, while earning an arts/science dual degree, the former a double major in French and German, and the latter ultimately settling on botany and conservation biology. Languages, music, and botany. Cool, cool, and cool.
For her honors project, Weinstein was originally set to do research on a species of pitcher plants that rats use as toilets, a mutually beneficial arrangement by which the plants get some nourishing food and the rats get nectar. That fell through, however, and with an almost reckless carefree aplomb she selected at the last moment orchid research at Kings Park and Botanic Garden instead. “This turned out to be an awesome stroke of luck and I had the most amazing and exciting year of my life researching these plants! Not bored of them after my honours, and still not after a brief but hectic and exciting stint as a research assistant during peak flowering, I was determined for the fun to continue, so ploughed heedlessly onwards into a PhD.”
It turns out that the pheromone trick wielded by the orchids pushes speciation in interesting directions. By mutating subtly varying types of emitted pheromones, different orchids can attract entirely different species of wasps, meaning that even though two orchids may look the same, they might be serviced by two different wasp species, so they may not end up exchanging genetic information with each other. Continuing that separation through the generations results in a hidden speciation process whereby two similar appearing plants no longer reproduce with one another. It is an example of an unusually rapid speciation process, and so is of interest to both evolutionary biologists and mainstream botanists.
Weinstein has already shone a light on the marvelous world of flowers dashing forward at an evolutionary gallop with the aid of an array of sexual tricks and traps, giving us cause to wonder, and in that state of wonder perhaps even to act.
Weinstein’s research has included studies on how pollinator behavior contributes to the pollination success of sexually deceptive orchids, the evolution of Cryptostylis (of which 18 Asian species were described in accounts a century ago, but only 7 have been recorded since, so if you have a line on some Asian Cryptostylis, Weinstein says, send her a note!), and an investigation into my new favorite plant, the hammer orchids. “These hinged orchids achieve pollination when a male wasp grabs the orchid and tries to fly off and mate with it, yet because of the hinge structure instead he is flipped over and whacked onto the pollen – hence the name Hammer Orchid.”
I think we can all agree, there is something deeply satisfying about that particular pollination mechanism.
Weinstein’s work is two-fold, to find and analyze the species under her care and also to determine the best means of conserving them. Preservation of these “cryptic” orchids is difficult given the fact that they look identical and yet represent a tumble of different species, each dependent on its own unique pollen carrier. Finding ways to conserve these species naturally leads to larger questions of environmental protection, which Weinstein is addressing by opening more lines of communication between the scientific community and the population at large.
It is not enough in times such as ours to do your research well, but in the face of governmental policy shaped by industrial profits and driven by relentless scientific misinformation, the scientist has an extra role to play, to stand on a public platform and, with Herculean patience, explain what science does and does not support, weather the fury of the trolls, and lead people to a fuller appreciation of the world we live in. “To see positive change for the environment in a relevant timeframe, big changes are going to have to be made in the government and industry, and fast. The most effective thing we can do is rally for these changes, and make sure our politicians realize the importance of the environment to the community… Stay informed – stamp out fake science, use real science – and spread awareness about it.”
Through her enthusiasm, Weinstein has already shone a light on the marvelous world of flowers dashing forward at an evolutionary gallop with the aid of an array of sexual tricks and traps, giving us cause to wonder, and in that state of wonder perhaps even to act. Not yet thirty, there are yet decades of research and scientific adventure before her, years of discovery for her and, if we have the gusto and curiosity to follow, for us as well.
FURTHER READING: You can follow Weinstein on Twitter to keep up with her botanical research. To learn more about the quiet marvels of orchids, she recommends Darwin’s Orchids: Then and Now (2014), edited by Retha Edens-Meier and Peter Bernhardt. But while you’re waiting for that to arrive, here is a great video of hammer orchids doing what they do best – either watch the whole thing or speed to 4:00 for the main event!